A New Branch Full of Surprises

The Malvern Hills (photo courtesy of visitmalverns.org, no copyright violation intended).

Every time I assume that by now I have located and traced entirely all the collateral branches of my family tree, I am (happily) proven wrong. A couple of days ago I logged on Ancestry.co.uk where a pop-up message informed me that they have updated and uploaded thousands of new probate records. I immediately typed in my paternal grandmother’s maiden name and the place she came from, the small village of Colwall, in the Herefordshire side of the Malvern Hills. The first result that came up eventually led me down a whole new path with details I had never expected to find in my seemingly rural family tree.

Joseph Allen was the younger brother of my 3x great-grandfather. His existence wasn’t news to me, for I had already traced his presence on several census returns. In 1851 he was living at The Knell, Colwall, with his widowed mother Sarah, his wife Hannah and their first child, a girl called Ann, who is 7 at the time. In 1861 Joseph is listed once again with his widowed mother -who died later that same year-, his wife and 10 year-old son Herbert. But daughter Ann seems to have vanished! I remember trying to find out months ago whether Ann had died in Colwall by looking at burial registrations, in that parish, to no avail. Going through the Free Birth, Marriage and Death Database was inconclusive when I triedto find Ann’s hypothetical marriage, but the results were too ambiguous to pinpoint a correct match. I finally gave up the search, imagining that Ann would remain, like so many others in the family tree, an anonymous name on the missing persons list.

The joy of discovering new relatives thanks to the England & Wales Census!

The probate records made accessible on Ancestry recently showed me how wrong I can be (sometimes!). The administration of the widowed Joseph Allen, of Colwall, was granted to Ann Webb, wife of Joseph Webb, of West Bromwich, “the Daughter and Next of Kin”. Well well! Ann did survive infancy and was married by the time her parents passed away. Too exciting to resist. So I started going through the records.

Tracing Ann’s marriage to Joseph Webb was easy enough; it took place in 1863 across the border from Ann’s home, in the registration district of Worcester, which explains why I never found their marriage record in the county of Hereford. Wrong once again. By 1871 the couple were living in Leigh, on the road linking the cities of Hereford and Worcester. The census reveals several other details about them as well; for instance, husband Joseph is recorded as… a Police Constable! Ah, that’s why they’re living at the County Police Station! Makes a nice change from all those farmers and labourers I seem destined to dig up with my research My, my! Joseph and Ann seem to be the proud parents of three children by then: Alice J. and Albert H. born in Malvern, and little Edith, born in Ripple, further south of the county, near the Gloucestershire border. I can only assumed that it was Joseph Webb’s job which took the family from Malvern to Ripple and then back up to Leigh.

Ten years on and the family keeps on growing: Ann and Joseph have had six children by now, but oddly enough Joseph is no longer a Police Constable, but a simple labourer. Could he have retired early, or is there a darker mystery surrounding the demise of his professional career? Teenage daughter Alice is still at home, without any particular occupation mentioned; son Albert now works as an errand boy, while siblings Edith and Reuben are schoolchildren. Three year-old Esther and baby Rosa are still under Ann’s care. Both girls, as well as young Reuben, were born in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, so I assume the family moved there after leaving Leigh. As all subsequent census returns were taken there, I can surmise they made their definite home in West Bromwich.

Recreation of a 19th-century post office (courtesy of richmondshiremuseum.org.uk, no copyright violation intended!)

The 1881 census is the last one showing the whole family together. Joseph seems to have passed away in 1882, but I cannot find any further trace of his very elusive wife Ann. Has she died, or has she married someone else instead? I trace their children individually to see if she is living with them; although I reach no conclusion about Ann’s eventual fate, I do find some rather interesting facts about their six children. I cannot find eldest daughter Alice for love nor money, in 1891, but I so see her in the 1901 and 1911 census living with some of her father’s relatives; she is still a spinster and eventually moves back to her native Malvern to as a stationer along with her paternal cousin Ada, who worked as a sub-postmistress in Malvern.

Brother Albert Henry Webb seems to have followed in his father’s footsteps and became an Inspector of the Railway Police in West Bromwich, where he lived with his young wife Clara, three children and Detective Charles Brown, of Potton, Bedfordshire. But still no trace of Albert’s mother Ann.

Edith and Reuben, listed as scholars in the 1881 census, seem to have stuck together until 1901 at least, when they were recorded still living in West Bromwich; Reuben eventually became a brewery warehouseman. Yet another surprising profession! In 1901 he married Harriet Riley and by 1911 they had already had and lost their only child; by then Reuben’s profession also changed to caretaker in “iron merchant’s”.

West Bromwich Union board room (left) and main entrance, circa 1904. Union workhouses were grim institutions (photo courtesy of workhouses.org.uk, no copyright violation intended!).

But what of his two little sisters, Esther and Rosa. If their mother Ann did indeed die around that time, what happened to the girls? I fear something terrible has happened to them once I seem unable to find their mother in any further records. Being so young, I can only hope they are living with relatives, perhaps other cousins on their father’s side. Sadly, I am again proven wrong. Rosa died aged 3 in 1883, shortly after her father’s passing and possibly shortly before the (presumed) death of her mother. Her sister Esther lived for a few more years, but in wretched conditions, at the Union District Workhouse in West Bromwich, where she was classified aged 12 among dozens of other female pauper inmates… as an idiot! The workhouse seems to have been nothing short of a lunatic-assylum-kind-of institution, full of idiots and imbeciles. I wonder what the difference is between these terms, so I turn to Wikipedia:

“In 19th and early 20th century medicine and psychology, an “idiot” was a person with a very severe mental retardation. In the early 1900s, Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system for mental retardation based on the Binet-Simon concept of mental age. Individuals with the lowest mental age level (less than three years) were identified as idiots; imbeciles had a mental age of three to seven years, and morons had a mental age of seven to ten years.The term “idiot” was used to refer to people having an IQ below 30. IQ, or intelligence quotient, was originally determined by dividing a person’s mental age, as determined by standardized tests, by their actual age. The concept of mental age has fallen into disfavor, though, and IQ is now determined on the basis of statistical distributions.In current medical classification, these people are now said to have “profound mental retardation.”

So poor little Esther was born severely mentally handicapped. It seems hard that even after the death of her parents, none of her siblings took her on into their care to nurse her, but perhaps they were going through difficult times themselves, having to cope with the loss of their father and mother at a relatively young age. I feel very sorry for poor Esther, who probably never left the loony bin; she died in 1894 aged 15. Still no trace of her mother Ann, but what do I care. This branch of the family has proven very surprising , and surprisingly sad. I think I’m done with researching genealogy for a day.

This entry was posted in 1871 Census, 1881 Census, 1891 Census, 1901 Census, 1911 Census, Birth, Colwall, Death, England, Genealogy, Herefordshire, Illness, Marriage, Property, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Workhouse. Bookmark the permalink.

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